At some point in the 1990s, carbs got a bum rap (one that sadly didn’t vanish with other unfortunate trends of the era, like brown lipliner). How do I know the stigma still exists? Because people often ask me what to eat when craving carbs, as though the answer couldn’t possibly be carbs.
Yep, that’s right. You can TOTALLY have carbs if you’re craving them. As long as you don’t have uncontrolled diabetes or other medical conditions that might require a bit more carb caution, I’ll sign your permission slip right now.
That said, not all carbs are created equal, in terms of how they impact your body. In this post, I’ll share a few suggestions for what to eat when craving carbs. But first, let’s talk about why some carbs are better choices than others.
Not All Carbs are The Same
Are you picking up on the fact that I enjoy carbs? Good–because carbs are awesome! They’re super delicious, and (with some exceptions, obviously) contribute key nutrients to the diet.
But. Not all carbs are the same, as far as how they impact your body.
Because they’re absorbed more rapidly, sugary carbs–like candy and baked goods–can cause spikes in blood sugar. To compensate for these spikes, your body releases more insulin to pull sugar out of the blood and into the cells. But unfortunately, this can sometimes cause blood sugar to dip too low, leaving you craving junk food (specifically, more sugar) to bring your blood sugar back up to the normal range. It’s a nasty cycle.
The same can be true if you eat a lot of carbs in general without protein, fiber, and fat (all of which slow the absorption of sugar) to balance them out.
With all that in mind, here are a couple of rules of thumb for when the carb cravings hit:
- As much as possible, choose carbs that are higher in fiber.
- Pair your carbs with a bit of protein or fat so you don’t end up with even more carb cravings.
- Limit carbs that are high in sugar (notice I didn’t say give up altogether–that’s crazy talk!)
- Choose wholesome, nutritious foods at least 80% of the time, and save a few calories each day for foods you enjoy.
- Try to hold off until you’re actually hungry for a meal. Don’t snack on carbs just for the sake of snacking (this also means eating your sweets with meals. For example, dessert right after dinner).
- Remember that the first 2-3 bites of any food are going to give you the most satisfaction, flavor-wise. If you decide to indulge on a delicious sugar bomb, try to see if just a couple of bites will scratch that itch.
- Stop eating at an 8/10–satisfied, but not stuffed. This is not the last time in your life you’ll ever get to have this food, I promise.
- If you’re often craving carbs, consider whether you might be experiencing reward hunger. In some cases, you can stop food cravings with mindful eating.
Now that we’ve laid down some ground rules, how about a few suggestions for what to eat when craving carbs?
What to Eat When Craving Carbs
Cravings don’t quite hit the above criteria for healthy carbs? No worries–here are a few swaps for common carb cravings.
If you’re in the whole “carbs are bad” camp, what I’m about to tell you will BLOW your MIND.
Eat the potatoes. Potatoes aren’t problematic in and of themselves–and actually, they’re a great source of fiber (if you eat the skin), potassium, magnesium, B vitamins, and other nutrients.
The problem with potatoes is usually related to either portion size or preparation. I’m talking about massive potatoes loaded with bacon, cheese, butter, and sour cream. Or, potatoes that are sliced up, coated in salt, and deep-fried.
The keys with potatoes are to eat them baked, eat the skin, and keep the portion size to about 2.5 to 3 inches in diameter.
Following these guidelines, I go through phases where I eat potatoes almost every day–usually topped with lean ground beef, fajita veggies, and a little salsa!
Craving Potatoes that are Deep Fried and Covered in Salt (aka, chips)?
So, we just established that potatoes are healthy as long as they’re not, say, deep fried and covered in salt. But what happens when you’re craving chips and other snack foods?
My go-to alternatives in this case are veggies (if I’m mostly craving chips as a vehicle for dip), SkinnyPop popcorn, or bean chips. These will all satisfy your need for crunch while helping you to meet your daily fiber quota.
Pasta is the ultimate comfort food. And if you often find yourself craving noodles, I have great news for you! There are healthy alternatives out there that actually taste amazing.
My favorite is Banza, a chickpea pasta that will dupe the most discerning of pasta lovers. In addition to being delicious, one serving provides 20 grams of protein and 8 grams of fiber. Compared to regular pasta, which is higher in carbs and lower in fiber in protein, Banza will digest and absorb more slowly and can help you to feel more satisfied at the end of your meal.
Candy and Sweets
Hopefully by now, you have some good swaps in mind for when you crave starchy carbs. But what if sweets are more your jam (no pun intended)? I have a couple of suggestions for you.
The first is frozen fruit. Mango, cherries, and grapes are all delicious when they’re slightly frozen. You can also make “nice cream” by blending a frozen banana in your food processor until it takes on the consistency of ice cream, then mixing in add-ins like cinnamon.
Looking for something a little…warmer? Apples, peaches, and pears are all great for sauteeing. Just slice them up, spray your pan with a little cooking spray, cook until soft, and sprinkle with a bit of cinnamon.
Finally, there are lots of amazing flavored decaf teas out there. My favorite is a sweet and spicy cinnamon tea that tastes just like red hots (with zero calories, what what!!).
You might be wondering where the healthy brownies and cookies are on this list. There are some recipes out there with hidden healthy ingredients–like beans, sweet potatoes, and zucchini. But I do have a word of caution: A lot of these recipes have a bit of a health halo effect going on. Your body doesn’t really care if it’s maple syrup, sugar, or agave nectar–it still causes your blood sugar to increase. And in my experience, people tend to eat larger portions of these healthy takes on baked goods.
So, if you enjoy black bean brownies or paleo cookies, have a bit (emphasis on “a bit”). Or, just have a small amount of a regular brownie or cookie if that’s what you really want. As long as your diet is healthy overall, it’s really not that big a deal to partake every now and again.
In summary, there are lots of delicious and nutritious options you can enjoy when you’re craving carbs.
And, it’s perfectly okay to have a few bites of what you crave (even if it’s “bad”), as long as your diet is healthy overall.
But if you need a little help figuring out how many carbs to eat, or how to find balance in you’re diet, I’m here for you! Click here to schedule a free 15-minute call so we can chat about whether 1:1 nutrition coaching is right for you.
Kim Yawitz is a registered dietitian, a CrossFit Level 1 Trainer, and the owner of Two Six Fitness. In addition to her work at the gym, Kim is also the author of The Renaissance Periodization Guide to Nutrition for Pregnancy and Breastfeeding.